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Altamonte Jazz Ensemble: Fascinating Rhythm II, A Tribute To Ray Charles & A Family Affair

Jack Bowers By

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The Florida-based Altamonte Jazz Ensemble, established more than twenty-five years ago by saxophonist Mike Arena, an emigré from New York who remains its music director, keeps rolling along with more than half a dozen concerts each year, a trio of which are embodied on CDs that Arena was kind enough to send for commentary.

Altamonte Jazz Ensemble
Fascinating Rhythm II
Self Published

The earliest of the three discs is from July 2004, and the music couldn't be better, as it consists entirely of songs by George Gershwin. The first seven numbers are instrumentals, after which the ensemble introduces "Lady Of Song Linda Cole for eight more, then closes with a medley of tunes from Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess featuring pianist Dave Sheffield and arranged by the late Tom Mitchell, to whom the album is dedicated.

The ensemble is fairly decent, about what one would expect for a group of part-timers, but the sound is something else again. As is the case with many concert performances, the balance is off-kilter, even though there is some marginal improvement during Cole's set. As a result, the band seems unsure at times, even off-key, which may or may not have been the case. There are, of course, a fair number of audible mis-steps, a rather common occurrence under the circumstances, but they're not serious enough to lessen one's pleasure (at least, the audience doesn't seem to think so).

Sheffield is splendid on the twenty-four minute medley, while Cole deserves high marks for endurance as well as artistry, commanding the stage for more than twenty minutes on songs ranging from ballads ("Someone To Watch Over Me ) to swingers ("Nice Work, "A Foggy Day ). Soloists are so-so, with the best of them an unnamed tenor (Arena?) and trumpeter. On the one hand, it's great to know that the AJE is alive and blowing; on the other, it's a pity the sound quality on this concert date isn't nearly as fascinating as the rhythm.

Altamonte Jazz Ensemble
A Tribute To Ray Charles
Self Published

The sound is perceptibly better on the second concert, presented in June 2005 and billed as a tribute to Ray Charles, even though much of the music on offer bears little or no kinship to His Soulfulness. In fact, the opening number, Don Hannah's arrangement of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Vesti La Giubba, couldn't be much farther removed from the Charles style. Rich Walker amends that in part with a mini-salute, consisting of "One Mint Julep, "Baby Don't You Cry and "I Got a Woman. Although advertised as a vocalist/guitarist, I can't help wondering if that's Walker playing the piano and Hammond B3 organ on several tracks. Maybe, maybe not.

Linda Cole returns early on to sing a triad of standards, "Makin' Whoopee, "Every Time We Say Goodbye and "Come Rain Or Come Shine, while Taylor Pashley is the vocalist on "Stormy Weather, on which the mic placement makes it seem like she's singing in stereo (as it does Cole). The second half of the concert features Walker's voice on each of its eight numbers including three written by Charles ("Bright Lights, "Hallelujah I Just Love Her So, "Them That Got ), ending with a soulful rendition on Sydney Shaw's "I've Got News for You (on which a guitar, presumably Walker's, is also prominent).

As noted, the sound is better than on the Gershwin disc, as a result of which the band seems more together. Fans of Ray Charles may appreciate the enterprise.

Altamonte Jazz Ensemble
A Family Affair
Self Published

The last of these concerts, A Family Affair from May 2006, has an international flavor thanks to the presence of Swedish composer/pianist Per Danielsson and his wife, saxophonist Tamara Danielsson, an American from Seattle, WA, who once played lead alto with the outstanding University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band, and now leads her own quintet with Per at the keyboard.

As usual, the sound is variable, leaning slightly toward acceptable; as usual, the band hangs together as best it can, rising above the occasional lapses in symmetry or intonation; as usual, Linda Cole is there to handle the vocals; and as usual, the ensemble's guests come on later, after intermission, for the five closing numbers.

As on the Charles tribute, Cole sings Arena's arrangement of "Everytime We Say Goodbye along with two more of his charts—"Time After Time and "The Summer Knows. The Danielssons open their part of the program with Rick Stitzel's groovy arrangement of "A Beautiful Friendship, on which Tamara and Per solo brightly, as they do also on "Lullaby Of The Leaves, the wistful "Spring Can Really Hang You Up, Per's bustling, boppish "Big Foot and the buoyant finale, Gil Cray's arrangement of Clifford Brown's lyrical "Daahoud. The band must have been inspired, as it plays noticeably better when the Danielssons are onstage.

In realistic terms, these albums weren't produced to rack up big sales but rather to compile a record of the Altamonte Jazz Ensemble's public performances, and that's a good thing, as it is hard to recommend them to anyone aside from those who simply adore big band concerts and always find them pleasurable, warts and all. There are blemishes here, some of which couldn't be air-brushed, but as a whole the concerts are enjoyable if not spectacular, and it's good to know that the AJE remains tanned, fit and "dedicated to the preservation of the big-band jazz tradition after more than two and one-half decades in the sultry Florida sunshine.

Tracks and Personnel

Fascinating Rhythm II

Tracks: Strike Up The Band; Fascinating Rhythm; Rhapsody In Blue; I've Got A Crush On You; But Not For Me; I Got Rhythm; Summertime; S'Wonderful; Somebody Loves Me; Someone To Watch Over Me; Our Love Is Here To Stay; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Embraceable You; They Can't Take That Away from Me; A Foggy Day.

Personnel: Ken Titmus, Chris Dolske, Bruce Johnson, Chris Aycrigg, Howard Beckler: trumpet; Dave Weaver, Fred Case, Kim Speck, Dave Rasmussen, Marion Scott, Mike Arena: reeds; Jim Foy, Joe King, Don Lohr, Don Waldrop, Will Rogers: trombone; Dave Sheffield: piano; Rick Richolson: bass; Steve Brown: drums; Linda Cole: vocals.

A Tribute To Ray Charles

Tracks: Vesti La Giubba; Stumpy; Stormy Weather; God Bless The Child; Makin' Whoopee; Every Time We Say Goodbye; Come Rain Or Come Shine; One Mint Julep; Baby Don't You Cry; I Got A Woman; Bright Lights; How Long Has This Been Going On; Hallelujah I Just Love Her So; Georgia On My Mind; Them That Got; Outskirts Of Town; Oh What A Beautiful Morning; I've Got News For You.

Personnel: Fred Case: trumpet, replaces Jeff Brody. Add Mario Ticlea: guitar; Rich Walker: guitar, vocals.

A Family Affair

Tracks: All Or Nothing At All; People Make The World Go 'Round; Rockin' Chair; In A Sentimental Mood; Every Time We Say Goodbye; Time After Time; The Summer Knows; Hipper By The Dozen; A Beautiful Friendship; Lullaby Of The Leaves; Big Foot; Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most; Daahoud.

Personnel: Eric Wright: trumpet, replaces Chris Dolske; Tony Salvatori: trombone, replaces Don Waldrop; Tom Silliman, Mike Kahn: reeds, replace Dave Rasmussen, Dave Weaver; Mike Arena: reeds, out; add Greg Parnell: drums; Per Danielsson: composer, arranger, piano; Tamara Danielsson: saxophone.


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